Beware Walled Gardens – Part 2


This post is the second in a four two part series, you can read part one here. Having set out a case for social networks in place of VLEs in part one, one of my other criticisms of learning platforms is that many of the tools they come pre-loaded with are simply not up to scratch when compared to the myriad of tools freely available on the World Wide Web.

Collaboration (and a healthy dose of assessment for learning)

Google Docs does collaboration effortlessly and in genuine ‘real time’. This makes it far more powerful than its competitors.  I spent more than two years wrestling with the wiki module in Moodle before I made the move to Google Docs. I have never looked back since. The fact is that real time collaboration is far more meaningful for students. They feel empowered by the fact that they can make instant changes instead of having to wait in turn. This has been my main criticism of Moodle, many of the tools lack the instancy that I and my students have come to expect, particularly when it is available in other tools on the Web. I can’t speak to what Diipo will offer in this area but as an avid Google Docs user I can’t see it making me want to switch.

What’s more, as I have already chronicled on this blog, Google Docs offers excellent opportunities for assessment for learning. I use it on almost a weekly basis to develop my students’ peer and self-asasessment skills. I also try to assess as much work as possible using it at the formative stages. My students really enjoy using it.

Oliver Quinlan has also blogged about his use of Google Docs for collaborative assessment. In his concluding comments he discusses the notion of students developing their own workflows. This is an interesting concept, which I insert here, because I have had similar experiences. The wiki module in Moodle is quite cumbersome and in actuality rather than promoting collaboration, inhibits it. Google Docs offers multiple ways for students to collaborate, discuss and edit their work including a simple back channel. My students have thrived using Google Docs and I have found myself rethinking the way I plan these sorts of activities, trying to allow them to tread their own path.

As for security, there is little to be concerned about here. Documents are private by default and can be shared and unshared at the author’s discretion. One of the first things that I discuss with my students is the benefits and potential hazards of sharing information with others, particularly publicly. The benefits of sharing documents though are clear and I can’t think of one collaborative tool offered within a VLE that could generate or reproduce the level of creativity displayed in this video:

A range of apps with infinite possibilities

There are a whole bunch of other useful Google tools that your students can harness via the World Wide Web that won’t be found inside Diipo or Moodle. Lets start with the cornerstone of the web: Search. While some will argue that as the teacher I should curate resources for my students, which I could link to from within the VLE, I would rather teach them to make better use of Google’s excellent search engine. Rather than me trying to write about it, hop on over to Ian Addison’s blog and let him show you some of the hidden tools that can make Google search a highly valuable experience for learners.

Another tool that Google offers is Maps. For this one I’ll let Tom Barrett’s blog do the talking. He made excellent use of it during all that snow we experienced last year.

Nearly all Google apps (Scholar, Books, Earth, YouTube) offer valuable learning opportunities but none are tied down within a learning platform. They are free and available online. The only thing that will stop you using them is your imagination and possibly your schools internet service provider (you might have to get them unblocked). Every Google app I have used with my students has worked well, I can’t say the same for some of the tools I have tried in Moodle.

If you want to get more out of using Google apps with your students you should definitely check out Richard Byrne’s guides and tutorials on his blog. Or check out the excellent range of teaching ideas for Google Search, Docs, Forms, Maps and Earth from Tom Barrett’s Interesting Ways series.

It’s not all about Google though, there are many other apps out there that are worth using with your students. One I use a lot is Lino it. Lino allows you to add sticky notes to a canvas. It is great for starters, plenaries, homework. I can begin a discussion with it in one lesson and then re-use it for homework the next. The principal of mind-mapping or generating ideas could be done in a forum on Moodle I guess but it can’t be re-ordered afterwards, it can be reused in half as many ways. I have written about Lino in more detail here.

In a recent Moodle training session I delivered I used Lino to get feedback at the end. The 16 teachers who attended were more wowed by Lino than they had been by everything we had covered in Moodle. I wonder if its because it took them less than two minutes to figure it out. Shouldn’t VLEs be that easy?

Another fantastic tool is Voicethread. It allows you and your students to comment on text, audio and video, giving you something that can be referred back to later and, like Google Docs, is fantastic for formative assessment. Check out what David Mitchell and his Year 6 class have been doing with it at Heathfields.

Is a learning platform necessary?

I can already see that one of the responses levied at me will be: “Having a VLE doesn’t mean you can’t make use of these tools, you can link to them or embed them within it.” However, the notion of adding or embedding links within a VLE makes me ask: Is the VLE necessary at all? If I’m going to go outside of the VLE to find tools that I actually want to use and believe that my students will enjoy, can’t I curate those on a well managed website or a blog. Why do I need to invest in VLE to do that?

And in the current climate, with funding in education being the way it is, would I not be better off encouraging staff to take a pick n’ mix approach to IT based tools rather than buying into a heavy duty content management system that needs to be paid for (there are servers that need to be maintained after all) and having to employ someone to look after it? When that person is let go because the school can’t afford to pay them anymore, who is going to help fix broken VLE pages or modules? If Google Docs has a problem there are a whole team at Google who will sort it out and it won’t cost the school a penny.

Natalie Laferty responding to part 1 of this series on Twitter yesterday shared this post with me. Two students, at the University of Pennsylvania, created their own learning platform in response to their dislike of Blackboard, describing it as: “overloaded with features and dreadfully designed, making simple tasks difficult”. Perhaps, that is part of the problem; VLEs are suffering from ‘feature bloat’. If they were stripped back they might have more of a purpose.

In part three: blogging, file sharing and the importance of the hyperlink.

Image by James & Vilija on Flickr.

QR Codes in Education: A Burgeoning Narrative

Since I last published thoughts on how QR Codes could be used for learning in a short audioBoo (click the link or scan the QR Code on the right), there has continued to be a growing and significant buzz about QR Codes on Twitter and in the blogosphere. A narrative is developing as ideas, experiences and best practices are shared and discussed.

The ball got rolling at TeachMeetX where Julian S. Wood delivered a thoroughly engaging presentation on storytelling and QR Codes. I couldn’t be there in person but was fortunate to catch most of what Julian had to say via UStream. What struck me during the presentation was not the quality of the tech but the pedagogical principles that underpinned the activities putting the technology where it belongs: at the heart of making the learning happen but not directing it. Hopefully, the video of the presentation will be available soon and everyone can see it. One of the tools that Julian used was Delivr which I have written about here and will mention again later in this post.

A couple of days later I was catching up with Twitter and dropped in on a discussion that was taking place about QR-Codes. Dughall McCormick tweeted out a link to a blog post he had written about QR Codes and an app called stickybits – see Tim Ryland’s article here for more info on that. Dughall shared a variety of ways that QR Codes/stickybits could be used, all with their various merits and implications. My personal favourite was this:

Stick a code on the front of a pupil’s exercise book. Feedback can be added in any format as time goes on. This can be done by peers, the student, teachers, parents etc. The same could be done for homework presumably

This struck me as immediately pertinent as there is a huge drive on assessment for learning and the marking of work in my school at the moment, what with Ofsted just around the corner. More importantly it is one of my many beliefs, in relation to education, that assessment can be a driving force in improving a students progress and attainment. This may be one way that I myself experiment with QR Codes and/or stickybits.

Dughall finished by sharing a few other useful links including a collaborative guide produced by Tom Barrett et al. about using QR Codes in the classroom. It is part of his excellent Interesting Ways series and so far there are 14 different ideas about how to use QR Codes.

Also mentioned by Dughall and tweeted out the same day was a post by the ever innovative David Mitchell – blogging about his use of QR Codes with his Year 6 class.

He explained and demonstrated through photos how they had been used. Essentially his students had drafted a piece of work in their books. They then wrote up their work on their class blog and generated a QR Code from their blog post’s URL. This was then stuck into their books. Instantly the gap between analog and digital work was bridged (or as David put it: “A Literacy book suddenly becomes an interactive book of weaved magic!”).

By allowing anyone to scan the code and see the final draft of the work while looking at the first draft it changes the engagement and interaction with the students work bringing the student, teacher, parent closer to creative and developmental process. A clever and highly effective use of QR Codes I think.

Below is an example of one of the images from David’s post – click to zoom and then scan the code – it really works!

As the discussion continued on Twitter over the next couple of days more and more resources and posts related to QR Codes began to come to light, demonstrating the fact that the technology is not that new and that educators have been toying with it for a while now.

One such post that was tweeted was from Ollie Bray who had written about QR Codes (back in 2008) in a post titled: iPhone in Education – Using QR Codes in the Classroom.

In his post he details how QR Codes work with some clear broken down screen shots. Towards the end of the post Ollie makes a couple of suggestions about potential uses but overall it stands as a good post for QR Code novices to help them understand the basic principles.

This was followed by a link to a PDF document (hosted by the EDUCASE Learning Initiative) titled: 7 Things You Should Know About QR Codes (written in 2009). The document is well structured and concise (2 pages), offering answers to basic questions like: “What is it?”, “How does it work?”; to more complex ones like: “What are the implications for teaching and learning?” This is a good starting point for QR Code novices. Download here.

There were a few more posts that were dragged up from the archives but I will not comment on them all here. A Twitter search for QR Codes should provide some useful results.

The final post I wish to discuss is fresh and new and was only published this week, on October 26th, over at the blog of David Hopkins – Don’t Waste Your Time. Titled: QR Codes: It’s not all about the phone, you know. David offers up three potential applications that could be used to scan QR Codes from your desktop computer. This was interesting and I am going to download and play with the Desktop QR Code Reader myself.

Reading David’s most recent post though led me back to his many other posts about QR Codes, some of which I had read through a few weeks ago when I had just begun to look at QR Codes myself. I felt that I would re-mention the post: QR Codes in the Classroom. The explanation and suggested uses are very good but even better than the written word is the video David has included of QR Codes in action. Scroll through the post, find the video and give it a watch. If you are still unsure about the potential of QR Codes, you won’t be after you have watched the video.

With a growing list of potential uses and some very well thought out pedagogical approaches I believe it’s fair to say that this technology is worth investing the time in. To get started with my own use of QR Codes I am going to focus on two areas:

1. Creating a class project based around similar principles to those presented by David Mitchell. I really felt the simplicity of linking physical writing with online content was an interesting notion that warrants further exploration.

I need to give it more consideration but I see excellent opportunities here to connect the creative/tactile freedom of my classroom with some of the tools that I already use with my classes online. One idea that came to mind was to get my students to collate a variety of useful material on a Lino It canvas, generate a QR Code for their wall. Then back in the classroom preparing for their controlled assessment they could scan the QR Code (now stuck in their books) to access that information.

Once I have planned the activity better and have the results I will certainly blog and share it.

2. Educating students, parents and fellow teachers on what QR Codes are and how they can be of use inside and outside of the classroom. I think there is an opportunity to share simple info like revision tips, short helpful videos and other similar materials. In principal this is straight forward as I have seen several good examples of QR Codes being used. One of the keys is to include info on how to scan the codes and where to get an app to do it.

With this in mind I found this clip from CSI on YouTube. It provides a fairly clear and engaging explanation of what a QR Code is.

I have shared it via Delivr which displays it on a dedicated page making it easy for it to be reshared. What’s more, as I mentioned in my blog post about Delivr when viewed on a mobile phone the page is optimised for mobile screens.

The success of sharing info in this way will be more difficult to judge than within the controls of a classroom based activity. This is why I will be using Delivr to generate the codes. Signing up for an account allows you to track the QR Codes you create. I will be able to get instant raw data on whether the codes are being scanned.

Again I will blog and share the results.

Before I close this post I will share one more useful link. There are several pages on the web that help you find the right QR Code reader for your phone but I felt that this one from PercentMobile was the most effective. Simply select the manufacturer and handset model that you own and it then provides you with a link to an app that will work with your device. Get out there and get scanning.

If you have anything to add to the QR Code narrative, perhaps you have experimented with them in your classroom; or you have a useful resource to share; or you have read a good blog post then please share it via Twitter using the hash tag #qrcode or reply to this post.

Assessment for Learning

At the beginning of every school year my colleagues and I attend our annual school conference. A theme for the year is established, a key note speaker booked and a full agenda planned with the intent of creating a buzz and anticipation about the new school year.

This year’s conference had a ‘back to basics’ focus with behaviour, assessment, progress and homework under the spotlight. I was asked to present on ‘Assessment for Learning’. Having tweeted that I would be presenting on this topic, I received several enthusiastic @replies enquiring as to whether I would share the slides and/or blog about it. Here are the slides that I used:

My aims were: to encourage my colleagues to use technology to support the assessment process; to realise that assessment is a valuable tool which will help students to progress; and to offer some advice on how to make marking and assessment more manageable. The slides on their own do not tell the whole story so if you would like to know more about a particular tool please reply to this post or tweet me @jamesmichie.

Design as Teaching

golden flowers

I am in the middle of reading ‘Design: A Very Short Introduction’ by John Haskett. Like many other design related books ‘Design…’ begins by exploring the evolution of design establishing the idea that design permeates every facet of life. Haskett then goes on to discuss the merits and values of form and functionality – something which is explored effectively by Bruno Munari in the excellent ‘Design as Art’. Reflecting on the values of form and functionality got me thinking about how much design goes into the learning that takes place in my classroom and reminded me of something that I was told as a trainee during my first school placement.

Even the smallest change in environment will effect their (students) behaviour and attitude towards learning.

This has stuck with me and has had a profound effect on how I approach everything I do as a teacher. In all that I do, weather it is maintaining the learning environment or assessing students work, I give considerable consideration to both form and function.

The following is a list of ways that design (form and function) have impacted on the learning inside my classroom. In order to keep this meaningful I have not provided an exhaustive list but simply offered two examples for each area. Under each heading, the first example demonstrates how form has impacted on that particular area of my teaching. The second example demonstrates how functionality has had an impact.

Classroom (Learning Environment)

  • Your classroom must be clean with well maintained (preferably interactive) displays. It sends a message to the students, the minute they arrive in your room, about the sort of teacher you are and what standards you will expect from them.
  • The way that you use your seating in your classroom is exceptionally important. I have developed a seating plan system in which I seat my students in pairs based on similar ability. They are sat behind/in front of another pair who are slightly more able which allows me to minimise movement during group based activities. I also incorporate the students’ photos on to my plan along with their target grades and any SEN information that is available. For the first term I adjust the seating arrangements until I am happy that it works in terms of learning/behaviour. This process really helps me get to know them quickly and informs my understanding of each students potential.

Lesson Planning

  • I try to make sure that my lessons are engaging and challenging to ensure that my students enjoy what they are learning. This does not mean that my lessons are ‘fun’! It simply means that I ensure the activities are well designed for the different learning styles/abilities of the students in each of my classes. The right amount of challenge ensures that students feel engaged and will thus enjoy learning.
  • One of the keys to effective planning is maintaining an understanding of flow. I use Google Calendar to keep a record of my lessons. To ensure flow and that my classes and I reach our predefined goals I constantly review what we did in the previous lesson and what we will be doing in the following lessons. This helps me ensure that the activities and learning aims of each lesson are appropriate and will stretch/challenge each student to meet their goals by the end of the unit of work.

Teaching Style

  • I video myself regularly (I am not vain, honest.) to improve the quality of my lesson delivery. For example, I have made significant changes to the way I use the tone of my voice in lessons as well as simply kicking a few bad habits. However, I don’t think I will ever stop saying “erm…” all the time! ☹
  • I have also worked significantly on questioning techniques and approach certain lessons/units with a preconceived set of questions/questioning styles to facilitate different modes and levels of learning. It has also helped me be truly inclusive, having formed a specific methodology around questioning to target specific groups of students.


  • For both form and functionality I put nearly all of my homework online through the Moodle course that I am using for the particular unit I am teaching. I will often include a YouTube video as part of the homework, be it in a forum to spark discussion or as part of an assignment. Embedding the video is far more aesthetically pleasing that simply inserting a hyperlink. This video demonstrates how to embed YouTube videos into Moodle. The first method demonstrated works within the forum, wiki and assignment modules also.
  • One of the most important things about homework for you as a teacher is that it is manageable. This was one of the deciding factors in why I moved to putting nearly all of my homework online through Moodle. Marking online through Moodle is quick and relatively hassle free in both the forum and assignment modules. What’s more, Moodle gives you the ability to instantly grab data on students that have/have not done their homework. This record can be easily collated and printed to provide evidence for parents about their son/daughters completion (or lack there of) of homework. Very powerful!

Marking and Assessment

  • No red pens please! No, I’ve not bought into some educational fad. Red is simply an aggressive colour and I choose to avoid using it to mark my students’ work. Blue or green are equally good colours and show up perfectly well against the black type of my students’ essays. It’s simply a personal choice!
  • A recent redesign that has taken place within my teaching practice is that I have moved the majority of my formative assessment from paper and pen to electronic methods particularly through the use of Google Docs. I can assess a student work both in real time during a lesson and also after the fact. They can access their work and see my comments anytime they are online. And this method of assessment can, if used correctly, provide a clear record of the students targets and progression. (More on this in a future post.)


  • I love Apple. I teach on a MacBook Pro and adore the ergonomic and aesthetic beauty combined with seamless functionality that it offers. Apple produce devices that are objects of pure beauty. I used to be a PC but I could never return to “ctrl+alt+del”, erroneous file menus and (“spits”) Internet Explorer. Thinking about it makes me shudder! ☺
  • As a teacher I believe you should only use technology where it will enhance the learning of your students. I have put considerable time into testing and picking the technologies that I use with my students. They must be easy to use so that my students and I can focus on the learning rather than on how to use the technology. Here are three different examples of technology I have used with my students:

How has design impacted on your teaching? I would really like to know if some of the ideas I have put across have struck a chord or made you think about the form and functionality of your own teaching practice. You can comment below.

Image: ‘Golden Flowers’ by Shareen M on Flickr.

Lino It – Online Stickies

lino it

A brief post to document a new online tool called ‘Lino It’ which I made use of earlier in the week to complete an “assessment for learning” based lesson with my Year 10 Creative Media Diploma students.

‘Lino It’ is a powerful tool for online collaboration, brainstorming and sharing of information through sticky notes which can include text, hyperlinks, images and video. To some of you this will be sounding very familiar, and you would be right in thinking that it sounds like I am describing Wallwisher; a similar and somewhat better known “sticky notes” tool. However, I feel that ‘Lino It’ is much richer, in part due to the way that it handles video and images, but more to do with what it offers behind the canvas. After signing up (for free) you are taken to your dashboard in which you can create, edit and organise your canvases. You can store favourite canvases, create groups between users and also schedule events (within stickies) that can be linked with your Google calendar.

Most importantly ‘Lino It’ is exceptionally user intuitive. My Creative Media Diploma students’ figured out more about the tool than I had in less than 15 minutes. Letting the students sign up was a great decision as it gave them ownership of their canvas and they were the able to arrange and control the “stickies” that were being added. My most recent discovery (while working on this post) is that you can embed your canvases in to your blog, website or Moodle course. They look fabulous and would make an excellent addition to a blog recording a student’s development of a project or as part of an online portfolio.

Some example canvases:

The canvas I used as a starter activity for the “assessment for learning lesson:

starter canvas

An example student canvas from the same lesson:

student canvas

You can try ‘Lino It’ for free or sign up to get started straight away.